'Human tragedy': LA homelessness jumps to record-breaking level

The humanitarian crisis has drawn comparisons to poverty in the developing world, as more than 55,000 counted living in shelters and on the streets

The number of homeless people in Los Angeles has jumped to a new record, as city officials grapple with a humanitarian crisis of proportions remarkable for a modern American metropolis.

Municipal leaders said that a recent count over several nights found 55,188 homeless people living in a survey region comprising most of Los Angeles County, up more than 25% from last year. It is the highest number observed there, according to federal data that begins in 2007.

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The total includes those in shelters and also those subsisting outside, who make up three-quarters of the population and can be found everywhere from the sidewalks of Skid Row to the beachside boulevards of Venice and the concrete channel of the Los Angeles river.

“It just bespeaks the human tragedy that’s been going on in Los Angeles for decades and decades,” said Philip Mangano, a former head of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which guides national policy. “There’s a certain group of Americans who have living situations closer to a third-world favela than what one would expect in the entertainment capital of the world.”

Tom Waldman, a spokesperson for the homeless services authority, confirmed that “we appear to have set a record this year”, and added that the region has the “tools and resources” to resolve it.

While national numbers for 2017 have not yet been released, until last year homelessness had trended downward in the US. But a number of states – including in the west, which has some of the highest per-capita rates of homelessness in the country – have gone the opposite direction in recent years. California’s and Washington state’s numbers have been rising; Hawai’i is up more than 30% since 2007. High rents and a low supply of affordable housing are often labeled as the main culprits.

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Los Angeles does not have the most homeless people in the US. That dubious distinction belongs to New York, which tallied approximately 74,000 people last year. But New York has a “right to shelter” provision, and only a tiny proportion spend the night outside. California cities, including Los Angeles, lead the nation in the percentage of their homeless populations who reside in places not fit for human habitation – in vehicles or the tent cities that now seem a permanent feature of the local landscape.

Surprisingly, the number of homeless veterans in Los Angeles has spiked to 5,000 , despite the fact that eliminating veteran homelessness has long been a national focus. And there are twice as many people inhabiting cars.

“It’s very disheartening to see an increase of this magnitude,” said Mike Alvidrez, CEO of the Skid Row Housing Trust, which builds housing for homeless people with disabilities. “I think on the other side of the coin, this is a call to action.”

About 14,000 homeless people were moved into housing in Los Angeles in 2016. And in a sign of the urgency permeating the city, voters have chosen twice in the span of one year to tax themselves to provide for homeless residents. $1.2bn will go to building treatment facilities and affordable housing, of which the city hopes to construct 8,000 to 10,000 units, and a projected $3.5bn over 10 years is earmarked for additional services.

The significance of this investment should not be underestimated. Still, some in the city are sounding a note of caution over the possible impact of the Trump administration, which is in favor of cutting revenue streams that Los Angeles would use to help pay for new homes. “That means that we have to finance more of the unit and that results in funding fewer units,” said Yolanda Chavez, an assistant city administrative officer.

Volunteers count homeless people on a dark street in Skid Row, during the 2015 Greater Los Angeles homeless count.
Volunteers count homeless people on a dark street in Skid Row, during the 2015 Greater Los Angeles homeless count. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

Los Angeles’ homeless count numbers are not the final word on the scale of the problem. They are considered a snapshot, and indicate how many people were tallied on just a handful of nights as volunteers trawled the streets with clipboards. This method is not completely precise, and does not show how many experience homelessness at other points over the course of the year, a figure that could be larger.

Localities across the US have been releasing their 2017 results in dribs and drabs. On the west coast, the news has been sobering. Alameda county, home to the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, is up 40% over 2015. Seattle and San Diego figures have also risen, and the situation in the latter has been described a “a tableau of squalor and suffering”.

San Francisco and New York have not yet announced their numbers, and they will be watched closely. Like Los Angeles, the cities are considered a bellwether of the homelessness crisis in the US.

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Alastair Gee in San Francisco

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